This most unconventional of interviews happened in the most conventional of ways: Wilson Harris and I exchanged airmail letters across the Atlantic and then sped up the whole process by FedEx. Email was out, since Wilson does not use it. I sent him sheets of paper with my questions, and he typed his answers on a manual typewriter, complete with Wite-Out. I sent back more questions suggested by his answers, and so on. Our exchanges were kindly fed into a computer by Lydia Starling, the administrator of graduate programs here at the University of Miami.
I say all this about the mechanics of the interview because the dated nature of the exchange mechanism belies the revolutionary content of Harris’s thought. In my quarter-century of reading him the experience remains full of surprise and instruction. At 82 his mind is nothing if not chockablock with ideas about the transformation of approaches to fiction, history, and community. His early poetry grappled with classical Greek myths distilled in imagery drawn from a Caribbean landscape. The tone of high rhetoric sought to find a coalition between a New World setting as it collided with a classically trained imagination. Any trace of biography was heavily disguised by its transmutation into art. Then Harris published his first novel, Palace of the Peacock, with Faber and Faber in 1960 (he has lived in England since 1959), and the mold was shattered for something altogether new.
Instead of a landscape and experience distilled through a classical lens, Harris hit upon a pre-Columbian myth and history buried in the region and deploys that prehistory as a prism through which to examine some of the most pressing questions of our time. What is our relation to the planet? How should the storyteller approach stories? Can life find meaning in the imaginative arts? Instead of acting on a passive landscape with an inquisitive, romantic or even scientific imagination, Harris found that his experience as a surveyor in Guyana’s Amazonian interior changed how he imagined. Landscape informed his utterance and defined the very makeup of the expression of the story. Landscape became a primary character in the text, and an original writer, perhaps the most inimitable produced in the English-speaking Caribbean, was born. Twenty-two novels and four books of essays later—his new novel, The Mask of the Beggar, appears this summer, also from Faber and Faber—that vision remains no less startling, original and true.
Fred D’Aguiar You began as a poet in British Guyana. Your early poems published in Guyana in 1954 and reissued as Eternity to Season (1978) revere a European classical tradition characterized by Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian iconography. There is an implied mission in this early poetry to revise the given frame of a classic poetic tradition derived from England and for it to accommodate the tropics of the New World. Could you say a little about the Guyana of the late ’30s and ’40s that led to the formation of this revisionary sensibility?
Wilson Harris The word “Guyana” is based on an Amerindian word that means “land of waters.” There is magic in this contrast in which the specter of land moves, the ghost of rock resembles a tide, in rivers that run. Such magic is the dance of place.
The ’30s and ’40s were a time of severe depression in coastal and urban regions of Guyana. Property values were at rock bottom.
In 1942 I had taken and passed the surveying examination—land and hydrographic surveying, mathematics, astronomy—and was on a major surveying expedition in the deep interior, the Cuyuni River interior, a river that has its headwaters in Venezuela. I was a junior officer of the government survey party.
This expedition was a revelation for me: multitudinous forests I had never seen before, the whisper or sigh of a tree with a tone or rhythm I had never known, real (it seemed) and unreal footsteps in the shoe of a cracking branch, mysterious play in the rivers at nights, distant rain bringing the sound of approaching fire in the whispering leaves, horses’ hooves on water on rock, the bark of dogs of technology in the bruised tumult of a waterfall … Much more that witnessed to the living water and land one had assumed to be insentient in the coastal and urban regions. This was another planet, a living, unpredictable planet.
I found it impossible to write what I felt, but persisted. There were clues in ancient Homer speaking of the gods as animals and birds arising and descending from spaces in and above the earth. This reminded me of the pre-Columbian god Quetzalcoatl, quetzal (the bird), coatl(the snake). There were clues in the one-eyed Cyclops that I now saw standing like a lightning-struck tree in the forest. But such clues came home to me as “museum pieces” divorced from their genuine and original sources. I had never felt such a divorce so acutely, so sharply before. I had accepted it all along as natural. My busy activities were all that action was. Now, however, in the depths of the multiform pressures of what seemed other than the nature I had known, in the sudden station of a tree, in the sudden station of a rock, like watchers that were potently alive, potently still, there was something else, something akin to a bloodstream of spirit that ran everywhere with an astonishing momentum that made my former activities pale into a fixity or immobility. Was it natural that an immobility at the heart of a busy world dominated the cultures that I knew? Was it unnatural that each prosperous group, or tight-knit state, accepted itself as inherently superior, others that strayed from a given path as deserving of rebuke or of violence to be meted out to the inferior?
I had had a glimpse of something immensely precious, but the question remained: how does one combine with, and transfigure, a cultural fixity that passes for action ingrained into one’s education? How does one bring into play—through various aspects and layers—a sense of profoundest cross-culturality beyond the immobility of habit or of virtue that exterminates all unlike itself?
This was the beginning of a task I could not evade—if I may put it that way—that lay in the incorporation of shells, of the branches of trees, of wood in oneself like a skeleton—interiorly and imaginatively in oneself—as much as exteriorly in diverse and complex nature. This gave me a sensation that conflicts in the past were unfinished and could be seen afresh beyond the frames or limitations we had imposed on them and on ourselves. I found myself intuitively moving into a poem I called “Troy,” which was written in 1950. I shall quote but two lines from that poem:
the strange opposition of a flower on a
branch to its dark
In that poem I knew an intuitive tremor of “flower and wooden branch” erupting in myself and transforming the flesh of fixity.
The dance of place had begun.
FD’A Your novel Palace of the Peacock (1960), the first of 23 published works of fiction, startled readers with its story as much as by the way you tell it. I remember when I first came across the book in 1978 how surprising the diction seemed to me. To begin with, no single narrative detail stood for one thing so much as at least two equally plausible things. For example, in the opening scene when a horseman is shot, he appears simultaneously to hang in the air as well. The diction and syntax say one thing and imply another shadow reality. Adverbs and conditional clauses splinter verbs and main clauses into multiple options working against their first sense and promoting alternative meanings of those first implied readings. These local effects in the prose are thrilling to read but they ask a larger question of the reader who is forced to revise his or her expectations of linearity and of the narrative.
WH Palace of the Peacock actually had its beginning in the Cuyuni River expedition, a beginning that was “mute” or “without a tongue.” It was a challenge for which I found myself without expression. This puts it as simply as I can. The shock of contrasts in river, forest, waterfall had registered very deeply in my psyche. So deeply that to find oneself “without a tongue” was to learn of a “music” that was “wordless,” to descend into varying structures upon parallel branches of reality, branches that were rooted in a stem of meaning for which no absolute existed. It took me 17 years—through “Troy” and Eternity to Season and above all through three experiments with novels, all of which I discarded—to strike the right rhythm and note with which I wrote Palace of the Peacock in 1959, the year I left Guyana. I had sensed a crucial change occurring in the narrative at the end of the third novel I had discarded before I left. I had achieved, it seemed to me, a blend of lands and precipitous places, Cuyuni and Potaro, the River of Kaieteur.
Palace opened, it seemed to me, a new world of fiction that made a succession of novels possible—with varying dimensions—the latest of which, the 24th, titled The Mask of the Beggar, is to be published in 2003.
I led members of the crew in the Cuyuni whose names appear in Palace. There are Carroll, the singer, “a boy gifted with his paddle as if it were a violin and a sword together in paradise”; Vigilance, “sparkling and shrewd of eye, reading the river’s mysterious book”; old Schomburgh, “agile and swift as a monkey for all his seasoned years”; the daSilva twins, “thin, long-legged, upright spiders, of Portuguese extraction”; Cameron, “brick-red face, faster than a snake in the forest with his hands”; and Jennings, “the mechanic, carved out of still wood it seemed, sweating still the dew of his tears, cursing and reproving his whirling engine and toy in the unearthly terrifying grip in the water.” I give these names to plumb an illustration of the cross-cultural figuration the entire party implicitly maintained. A subtle transfiguration draws them into carvings of wood resembling monkeys, spiders, snakes in hand or long-legged limb as they move in shadow and depth across memory to become “lifelike” in “appearance and spirit and energy.”
It is true, as you say, that the horseman in the opening scene, appears to be “shot” and to “hang” simultaneously in the air. The air or wind is “stretched and torn and coils and runs in an instant.” It becomes “stiffened” rope and bullet. Later we discover that Donne, the horseman, may have “drowned.” Three options of the way he died. This is important as it brings into play three lives he could have lived and which fiction should explore. I know that the view of science tends to be that we are all genetically coded, but I would suggest interior lives that touch nature and make us into living sculptures. Freedom therefore needs to be explored in depths beyond conventional linearities. A sculpture appears inanimate, ornamental, in its fixed lines, but it may have a psychical momentum within its stillness that makes it a piece of living art. Can a sculpture encompass the whole life or the whole death it presents? Would there not have to be “second deaths” and “second lives” in a fiction that seeks a wholeness beyond the violence that seems the inevitable and apparently absolute frame of human existence?
FD’A Donne’s three lives work as a unique approach in your fiction that is highly textured and multidimensional. It contravenes a trend in fiction you characterized in a 1967 essay as the “novel of persuasion,” which I understand to mean a novel heavily invested in the linear narrative, in a sequence of events relayed pictorially as a means of engaging a reader reputed to be terrified of stasis and “interiority” or reflection. The three planes of existence for Donne seem to mirror a necessary complexity you have invested in the notion of storytelling.
WH Donne is the brother of—and a stranger to—the I-narrator. This is confirmed in the I-narrator’s namelessness, which reflects many names and heritages born of the mystery of Nature and Spirit. Donne’s “three lives” is a unique approach, as you say, to a highly textured multidimensionality. The I-narrator knows him and does not know him. His “three lives” reflect a voyage, or voyages he may have made, in which little is accurately recorded. Even if there had been apparently accurate recordings there is much that would have been missed of his unorthodox, hidden, subconscious/unconscious diversions because of greed, lust for power, fear, dreams, emotions he himself is unable to express. All these constitute the “lives” one “lives.” It is only by bringing them into quantum play that we approach—if nothing more—a possible transfiguration in the violent wastage of world events.
Thus it is not altogether astonishing, I would say, that Donne and his crew are part of a myth in which “their living names matched the names of a famous dead crew that had sunk in the rapids.” The genuine possibility of remarkable myth—as profound and necessary in its changed form as Homeric and pre-Columbian myth—is present in Donne’s “three lives.” Mythis a term we have undervalued. Myth brings a dream of wholeness that cannot be taken for granted since it probes ceaselessly a material unconscious hiding much we need to know.
Let me give an example of hidden lives in world affairs. In America today there are many “colored” people who are designated “black” or “African.” Whereas they are mixed with the West—with the so-called whites who represent the West—in blood and spirit. This is a fateful, hidden matter though we do not see it as such. It may be partly responsible for deadly, one-sided polarizations in cultures around the globe that see themselves similarly locked into racial investitures.
I am not suggesting that racial admixture is a solution to the world’s grave problems. I am suggesting, however, that a freedom of diverse parts in Nature to blend into variant universals should be open in fiction and art.
Who, for instance, in our civilizational dilemmas would consider Legba of Haiti and Hephaestus of ancient Greece as cross-culturally and profoundly related? Both figures may deepen each other psychically and reveal a fixture of deceptions that may yield to a phenomenal regenerative truth through various roads of creative and re-creative complexity. Hephaestus—in his wounded technological unease—creates a deceptive armor of peace that Achilles wears for a battle with Hector of the Trojans. Legba is one-legged and stands apparently immune at the crossroads but sinks almost invisibly into the morass of Haitian affairs. They reach uneasily toward each other across the centuries to shed, by degrees, I would say, hard-and-fast notions of an absolute and invariant controlling ethos that bind them into ornamental fates.
Cross-culturality differs radically from multiculturality. There is no creative and re-creative sharing of dimensions in multiculturality. The strongest culture in multiculturality holds an umbrella over the rest, which have no alternative but to abide by the values that the strongest believe to be universal. Cross-culturality is an opening to a true and variant universality of a blend of parts we can never wholly encompass, though when we become aware of them we may ceaselessly strive for an open unity that they offer. In this quantum way we may forestall the tyranny of one-sided being.
FD’A Your British publisher, Faber and Faber, issued The Guyana Quartet in 1985, which comprised your first four novels from the early ’60s. I wonder if for the sake of this interview you could extend that publishing package to a quintet that includes your fifth novel, Heartland. Would you say something about the story of the region in terms of its history as explored in your first five novels?
WH I shall begin with a quotation from Palace of the Peacock, the first novel in The Guyana Quartet, then discuss its relation to “the story of the region in terms of its history” in Heartland.
DaSilva stared at the apparition his brother presented … Now he knew for the first true time the fetishes he and his companions had embraced. They were bound together in wishful substance … and self-destruction. Remove all this and weaken its appearance and its cruelty and they were finished. So Donne had died in the death of Wishrop. Jennings’ primitive abstraction and slackening will was a reflection of the death of Cameron, Schomburgh had died with Carroll. And daSilva saw with dread his own sagging body’s life like one who had adventured and lived on scraps of rumour that passed for the arrest of spiritual myth and the rediscovery of a new life.
This passage speaks eloquently, I feel, for “control” that becomes “bondage” in which the members of the crew are helpless, they are tied together in a psychical web that makes them, in some instances, perverse and cruel and exploitative of each other. This bondage resembles a “spiritual myth and rediscovery of a new life.” It is therefore partial, never absolute. It reveals implicit communities of fellowship. This throws light on a loss of control of the voyage upriver that the I-narrator—who plays, we may say, the role of “author”—suffers. He disappears entirely from the narrative. The I-narrator is nameless. Namelessness depicts a susceptibility to many names, many diverse heritages, which the I-narrator seeks in his quest for “wholeness.” He returns to the narrative later after the death of the crew (which occurs in many cases in his absence from the narrative) and finds himself exercising another pattern of control, another intuition of wholeness. The currents of history, the events he has seen, the characters he has created, turn on him now and invoke new imaginative responses from him. Everything creates him anew as he once created it. This is the mystery of consciousness that brings different patterns of control in a fiction that seeks wholeness. The crew come alive again. They are drawn into a “second life” as they had known a “second death” before. This paradox in the “lives” of the crew—of which the I-narrator possesses but fragmentary indications—springs I feel from quantum unpredictability in language of which I knew nothing when I wrote Palace but which, across the years, I have seen to be native, I would say, to the fiction that I write.
“Quantum” brings a hand in fiction that challenges all conventional fixtures of control within the psyche of art. A “second death” and a “second life” are incomplete approaches to a wholeness that can never be seized but needs to be sought ceaselessly and requires an immersion in complex natures that we have bludgeoned into inanimate lifelessness save in “wilderness” areas of the globe.
The I-narrator finds, on his return to the narrative, that he has the “courage to make (his) first blind wooden step. Like the step of the tree in the distance. (His) feet were truly alive as were his dreaming shoulder and eye.” This rare confession in a Dreaming man may tell perhaps of incompleteness in all principles of control one exercises. What can we know of “knowledge”—which is human and fallible—when we restrict “knowing” to a closure of learning in senses-in-non-senses? Do we not miss volumes when we think we have caught existence in a fixed or linear pattern?
In taking up Heartland, I shall touch on The Far Journey of Oudin, the second novel of the series. This will give us some idea of the “history” of which you ask.
Stevenson, in Heartland, comes to the Cuyuni forests disoriented and broken within himself. His business world has crashed. The woman Maria, whom he loves, has brought him close to a charge of conspiracy, which he narrowly averts when his father dies, a death in which he is unwittingly involved. He may conventionally be described within the agencies he has known: machinery, television, cars, telephones, etc., that have clothed him successfully in the prosperity in which he lived in the city. But now that so much has crashed and opened a wound he never saw before, he is imbued with startling memories of the machine as a struggling limb he must now feel for the first time like a stilted rock within symptoms of a rising subconscious consciousness. He is, with vagueness yet a certain clarity, aware of himself as experiencing “the heights of intoxicated limbs and suffering an acute fall into the void.” He comes upon daSilva from Palace—of which he knows but little—and finds him occupying reserves of shared mindscapes in a Dream. It is a many-sided Dream, one aspect of which tells of the first arrivals from another world who stepped on the shores of Guyana, before it possessed a name, Portuguese sailors who may have known the Spanish conquistadores. DaSilva is of Portuguese descent. And, as a consequence, there dawns on him what he calls “the great conquest” whose symbols may still rule the intoxicated spirit of the Americas bent on conquest by technology.
He meets daSilva when he arrives at his landing in the Cuyuni. “The bones in (daSilva’s) face were like splinters and the flesh over each fragile support was turning into grey animated newspaper.” Flesh like limbs is the substance of memory. Not long after, in a journey around the Kamaria portage, around the falls, he comes upon daSilva in a ravine of precipitous descent to which he is guided by the chattering of a monkey “signalling and wiping his comic sad eyes in the bush.” Here it is he sees himself precariously alive in daSilva’s dead body, “so changed in twenty-four hours it could have been Kaiser or Cameron or Stevenson himself.”
Who is Kaiser? Kaiser was consumed by fire in The Far Journey. He is an element of paradox “versed in the art of how to withstand the crack of doom.” Stevenson may have heard of such a fire and the eruption of someone in the bush resembling Kaiser stirs his imagination into a “wholeness” of tragic proportions pointing still beyond itself, beyond the precipice of conquest, into tenuous antecedents animal and human. Such antecedents may be known to technical or mechanical science but are unknown in fictions of art, which should feel their way beyond the stasis of practical, one-sided language.
Heartland is a fiction, I feel, of inexplicable truth. Stevenson seeks to see through the violence of centuries. He is confused and skeptical. Nothing he thinks or says can be taken for granted. He mourns for the woman whom he loves. He is aware of himself like a clock of death that holds “diminutive hands” that are his.
This passage suggests a particular species of fiction, and an approach to writing character in fiction that is highly invested in a spirit world or a world shadowing the one we see, an investment in an intuitive world, if intuition can be seen to have a double function both as water—divine that is, instrument, and the thing sought by it. You seem to suggest here for writers an approach to creativity that, if obeyed, should alter the result or outcome of what is written because of the apparent symbiotic nature of the undertaking.
WH Perhaps I have anticipated this question in my comments on quantum unpredictability. I had not fully realized, consciously realized, the unpredictability that is intuitively, shall I say, at work in the fiction I write, even when I wrote The Four Banks of the River of Space. Yet it is there in “paintings and sculptures that paint and sculpt one as one sculpts them” in one’s “book of dreams.”
This, I know, causes difficulties with readers who are accustomed to one mood or principle of control.
I can only say that all intuitions are partial and that they give way to unforeseen impulses but that they retain a shared foundation—diminishing perhaps, growing perhaps—that I have called “the mystery of inner space.” “Absence” and “presence” are shared beneath the apparent loss of a guiding “author” who returns—in a changed form—later. I have discussed this already in approaches to “wholeness.”
I feel all this brings us closer to a creativity that could alter, as you say, the outcome of writing through a variant symbiosis.
A great magical web born of the music of the elements is how one may respond perhaps to a detailed map of Guyana seen rotating in space with its numerous etched rivers, numerous lines and tributaries, interior rivers, coastal rivers, the arteries of God’s spider. Guyana is derived from an Amerindian root word, which means “land of waters.” The spirit-bone of water that sings in the dense, interior rain forests is as invaluable a resource in the coastal savannahs which have long been subject to drought as to floodwaters that stretched like a sea from coastal river to coastal river yet remained unharnessed and wasted; subject also to the rapacity of moneylenders, miserable loans, inflated interest.
(From “A Note on the Genesis of the Guyana Quartet,” in The Guyana Quartet)
Place as outlined here is a fully fledged character, rather than portrayed as symbolic or personified or pressed into service as metaphor (this is not to discount the three, since metaphor, symbol, and personification may be attributed to a successful character portrait). The landscape is not a backdrop. It is not passive. It exerts force and influence. The idea of a web that combines place and elements and stitches space together suggests fragility, vulnerability, and enormous strength, omnipresence. The perspective relates things to each other but each thing seen in isolation makes it vulnerable to misuse, squander. Does the secret of a more fruitful relation between writer and place or explorer and place have to do with perspective, with how the place is viewed, or is more required of the writer and explorer? I am thinking of the representation of place in your fiction, Guyana’s interior in particular, and how your way of talking about the place, your perspective, appears to have been radicalized by the encounter and interaction with place, a notion perhaps of form emerging out of content.
WH When I speak of “music”—as in the quotation you raise—I am thinking of “wordless music,” which brings an organ of animation within spaces in the dumb images we impose on nature everywhere. Such spaces are sparked into being and into “double meanings.” They have vulnerability and fragility, yet, through such vulnerability, such holed transparency, they touch on strength and omnipresence between characters—normally polarized and wholly separate—participating creatively and re-creatively in each other’s fates and freedoms. The language of conventional, linear fiction, which seems so strong, becomes an illusion and is broken by quantum holes that instantaneously make two penetrations or holes where one alone is expected. The “double meanings” may be said, in a numinous sense, to spring from a “music” or a rhythm that awakens spaces within passivities we take for granted.
Does the expression “land of waters” relate to a pre-Columbian complex we have long forgotten, or never understood, in our violations of ancient American civilizations?
Whether so or not, it summons us into an acute eye, an acute ear, beyond mere intellectuality, to listen for and to see “the land moving and capable of unconsidered arts in moved or moving rocks and shells and earth implying in its rhythm that “the waters are still though in a web of rotating space.”
Such paradoxes in variant symbiosis may assist us to harness the living waters in preparation for the dry, cracked face of drought that the earth wears, and it may help us to anticipate coming catastrophes from sea and river.
FD’A In your new novel you introduce the idea of the “fire that does not burn.” This strikes me first as a Christian emblem, the burning bush that instructs Moses not to sacrifice his son; second, as a revision of two fire-related myths, the myth of Prometheus, whose act of theft from the gods brought humanity a necessary lease into self and scientific inquiry, and the myth of the Phoenix, born out of fire, with fire as renewal; and, third, as a fictional process of illumination with the story as fire and its heat as ameliorating of the soul rather than as scorching of it.
WH In The Mask of the Beggar, “the fire that burns yet does not burn” certainly has a Promethean aspect but is very significantly concerned with the enigma of the furies. Here is a quotation from the novel:
What is art? What knowledge do we truly have of implements that tell us of the riddles of the past?
A Ship of fire, a Pen or Brush of fire, fire that is not fire, may be an atmospheric trick or it may tell of furies, modulated, toned down, on planet Earth. It may tell of Venus that is an unbearable furnace in the Sky. Venus exists across distances from Earth we do not psychically understand. Such distances are close in psyche and yet faraway as a frail sunflower bobbing and burning on a wave. How close is China to South America, how faraway from each other are these planetary waving continents in an Ocean of Space?
Is inner peace the material benign raised into complacent hardness—when we are pulled into explosions of the Self in one another—or is it a voyage into spiritual deprivations we have amassed that bring us back to contemplate a corridor in the Beggar’s mask that remains a subtle opening into the origins of meaning within the tone and temper of the furies?
“The Beggar’s mask” at the end of the quotation is Odysseus’s mask, which he wore as a disguise on his return to the kingdom of Ithaca. It is changed, however, into a mask with holes and subtle openings through which reappear immigrants who would seem like his drowned crew who died on their way back to Ithaca from burning Troy, burning like a fury.
All this points to “the origins of meaning within the tone and temper of the furies.”
Venus was and still is regarded as the planet of benign, invariant, or hard love though science knows technologically that it is an “unbearable furnace.” We also know mechanically and technically but it is difficult for us to feel this creatively as one penetration of Space with a quantum other bringing unusual translations in depth and range on Earth.
We have traveled, it would seem, psychically from Venus to Earth but we have not yet learned that Earth exists as a modulated, toned-down version of the furies in Space and in ourselves. As a consequence China and South America, which have exchanged immigrants, become symbols of conflict between continents that may be translated into “planets” “in an Ocean of Space.” In The Mask of the Beggar such “planets” become furies we need to read creatively in depth and range, or else it is possible that we could bomb each other in the future, fire meeting fire without a modulation, as Odysseus departed from Troy and left Troy in flames.